Scott Shalaway: Incubating hen turkey's vigil
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At about 7:15 on Monday morning I settled into a comfy spot about 20 yards from the edge of the woods. My intent was to experience the migration by sight and sound from a single spot. It was chilly, about 42 degrees, but I was dressed for it -- polar fleece jacket and wool cap. With woods directly in front of me and an old field to my back, I was armed with 8x42 binoculars and a spotting scope.
Almost immediately a field sparrow's bouncing whistle caught my attention. A catbird mewed, a towhee chinked. Then came the distinctive "Bee-buzz!" of my first of year blue-winged warbler. And then I heard the year's first yellow warbler songs. The morning was off to a great start.
These first sounds came from the field behind me, so to remain as inconspicuous as possible, I didn't bother turning around. Then off to my left, I noticed something skulking through the field. Maybe it was a gray fox or even a bobcat.
Not wanting to spook whatever it was, I turned my head slowly. It was a hen turkey, walking purposefully in a low crouch up the hill toward a multiflora rose thicket.
This was certainly unexpected because incubating hens usually sit tight until midday to keep their eggs warm. Upon reaching the thicket, the hen entered quickly and settled down, presumably on a nest. Very slowly I rotated the spotting scope in her direction, and dialed her into sharp focus. It was now obvious she was incubating eggs.
What spooked her off the nest in the first place? Hens typically tend the nest all night long and remain until midday. This behavior is the biological basis for having spring turkey hunting hours typically end at noon. This protects hens when they leave the nest to feed, water and get a little exercise.
Perhaps a coyote or bobcat had strolled by shortly before I arrived and that spooked the hen. Or maybe I had alarmed her by getting too close when I arrived.
In any case, I now had an opportunity to watch a hen on a nest, and thanks to the 45x lens on the scope, I had a bird's-eye view. So I decided to stay a few hours longer than I originally planned. Fortunately, a small, woody shrub partially obscured both my view of her and hers of me. So after I got the scope in position, she was oblivious to me.
Over the course of the next three hours, I learned that an incubating turkey's primary virtues are patience and vigilance. When a school bus rumbled down the nearby road, she cocked her head and glanced in the direction of the sound. When a red-tailed hawk screamed overhead, her gaze turned skyward. And twice she reached down into the nest to turn the eggs to ensure that each was getting evenly warm. Other than an occasional blink of an eye, that was it.
Despite their large size, hen turkeys are well camouflaged; they seem to disappear into dense vegetation. The naked head is dull gray, lacking the bright red, white and blue flesh that decorates the heads of toms in breeding condition. (Perhaps it was these bright colors that convinced Ben Franklin to argue that the turkey should be the national bird.)
If this was a typical turkey nest, it contained eight to 12 eggs, laid over the course of about two weeks. Incubation lasts 28 days. Within 24 hours after hatching, the downy poults follow the hen away from the nest to feeding areas rich in grasshoppers, crickets and other insects. Hatchlings stand about four or five inches tall and are covered in down.
At night, the hen broods her poults on the ground for 10 to 14 days. By two weeks of age, the poults are about seven inches tall and able to fly to the safety of low perches in roost trees for the night. By the end of September, poults stand as tall as adults, but have not yet attained adult weight. They devote the fall months to bulking up to prepare for the long winter that lies ahead.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.